The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville: Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman
Oh, Melville! There was not one story, or novella, in this collection that did not tussle my hair with wind, spritz my skin with salt-spray, or intimidate me with the threatening sound of white-capped waves slapping the side of an old, leaky ship (save Bartleby, which is no less fantastic for it’s relatively mundane setting). I was equally transported by each, across a world of land and sea.
In Benito Cereno, our narrator witnesses a strange vessel rush to the shore of a vacant island with sails tattered and flapping. The mysterious craft looks in no shape to start trouble, so he boards with the intention of lending a helping hand. But something seems…off, with both the evasive captain and the menacing crew. I liked the way the narrator flip-flops in his interpretation of what’s going on: his discovery is not a slow dawning of the truth, but a constant interrogation of bizarre surroundings. Sadly, but fittingly for Melville’s time and place, this story is heavy on Heart of Darkness-style racism which is used to play up the unsettling tone of the story and the savagery of past events aboard ship, intermittently revealed. Nevertheless, it’s tied up in a manner I found quite satisfying. The final paragraphs pack a creepy, powerful punch!
It’s slightly shameful that it has taken me so long to read the second story, Bartleby the Scrivener, since I’ve watched the movie adaptation with Crispin Glover a number of times already and am not at all opposed to watching it again.* In Melville’s original, it’s startling how quickly Bartleby begins to issue his “I’d prefer not to”s, and how earnestly his boss works to understand his employee’s refusal to do, well, anything. He really tries to get into Bartleby’s head, and feels a genuine sympathy for him, imagining how such a person could make it so far in life, and what such a life must entail. What could make a person so obstinate, so anti-authoritarian, so disruptive to simple bureaucracy by his very temperament and presence?
The third, The Encantadas, was my favorite. It’s almost out of place, as it doesn’t contain a standard, cohesive narrative. It’s a portrait of a place, a sketch of the many enchanted isles that make up the cluster known for misleading lost crews. It’s a place where compass needles spin wildly and ghost ships appear and disappear into the mist. A place where people have never lived that draws them in with the hunger of a bottomless stomach. One that doesn’t show up on maps, but is legend to all who’ve spent time at sea. Some micro-histories of sea-faring fellows’ contact with the islands are provided, a sort of warning about nature’s imperviousness to human willpower, an environment that promises eternal exploration and unknowing.
The last novella, Billy Budd, might have held the least pull for me, but only just so. Billy is a handsome and extremely popular sailer born of low means and conscripted into service. For all but the captain, he is a golden child and can do no wrong. But the captain disdains him and, with a paranoia likely mirroring the real feelings of captains at the time following true and recent mutinous events, accuses him of organizing against him. In a frustrating confrontation, Billy accidentally kills Captain Claggart, and despite everyone else’s conviction that he is a good man and didn’t mean to, they are committed to upholding The Law. I like the contradiction here between what is legal and what is right, though after having heard inferences of a gay subtext in this plot I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t much make it out. Or, maybe I have, but I’m not sure about it. Is it that the descriptions of Billy as handsome and perfect imply desirability amongst an all male crew? Is it that Claggart hates him in the way school kids hate on their crushes, and kills that impulse by causing his downfall? I know this is only one reading of the text, but it’s a popular one, right? I think I might need to read this one more closely, or seek out a critical essay or something about it.
As I’ve hopefully made obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Melville…much more than I expected to. I never truly considered that I would before, but I’ll be damned if that taste of his work hasn’t inclined me toward taking a stab at Moby Dick some day.
*Bartleby is now streaming on Netflix! It is weird and fun and the set is in the style of that town in Edward Scissorhands, and Crispin is great as Bartleby, so consider this a recommendation (but it is weird, so I’ll be sorry if you do take this recommendation and then hate it, as both my mom and brother have done. Oops :/)